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April 23, 2007

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Nato

What would a belief that there is no order in the world be like? Is this sentence a lie?

Nathan Smith

"What would a belief that there is no order in the world be like?"

Picture yourself in a boat on a river,
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly,
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes.
Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she's gone...

Val Larsen

Nathaniel writes:

“One might be aware of a certain fusion of a will, a memory, and a perspective without having formulated the concept of "I" to identify this entity. One might be aware of the flow of psychic impressions without having reified that as "thinking." The belief-step from the experience of thought-- the experience that more-advanced minds call "thought"-- to one's own existence may seem more like an intuition than a deduction without the developed concepts with which the thought-process can be framed/described, but the lack of the articulated concepts seems to undermine neither the reality nor the validity of this first step in the genesis of belief.”

What can it mean to have a will without anything to will? The will is an inner drive to some end. If there is nothing outside the will, ex hypothesi, toward which the will can impel one, the will cannot be experienced. Likewise, memory has positive content. If we have nothing to remember, ex hypothesi, the memory would be empty. Can a mind contain the memory of something that never occurred? Perhaps. One may remember having imagined something, but imagination feeds on experience. All imagined worlds I know of (e.g., the one where there is a girl with kaleidoscope eyes) combine various things that exist in the world of actual experience. Take away the actual experience, and the fantasy probably disappears with it. Likewise, perspective (meaning point of view) implies that there is something to be seen and a range of angles from which to see it, either figuratively or literally. But the seeable/thinkable other has been doubted away, so what can perspective mean? Descartes is positing a circumstance in which thought exists as such without any content but itself. But the self nonetheless intuits that there is a difference between the contentless thought and the self. We are back to Hegel’s pitch black night in which all cows are black, where it is hard to see (pun intended) how the dialectic of my self/my thought would operate. So to get to the nub of the problem, without knowing it, Descartes smuggles in to the Cogito the horizon of other entities that make the self and thought cognizable.

Nathan Smith

"What can it mean to have a will without anything to will?... If we have nothing to remember, ex hypothesi, the memory would be empty. Can a mind contain the memory of something that never occurred?... But the seeable/thinkable other has been doubted away..."

I don't understand what Val is talking about. One doubts away beliefs, perhaps, but not visual experience. The Cartesian gambit is not some conjuring trick, whereby a person loses all perception, all memory of perception, etc. One doubts all *interpretations* of perception, perhaps, in order resolutely to start again from the beginning; but raw sensory experience, surely, is still there. Likewise raw introspective experience.

Nathan Smith

"All imagined worlds I know of (e.g., the one where there is a girl with kaleidoscope eyes) combine various things that exist in the world of actual experience. Take away the actual experience, and the fantasy probably disappears with it."

I appreciate the "probably" here. I don't think the question of what the mind could think about without having any sensory experience (as opposed to doubting the types of beliefs that are typically formed on the basis of sensory experience) is what the *cogito ergo sum* is about. But it is an interesting question in itself. Tom has asked before: What would you think about, if you had no senses? Could you think about anything? It's a terribly hard, indeed a frightening question; but I think the answer is rather "unknowable" than "nothing."

Val Larsen

Nathaniel Writes:

"While we're at it not add what is given in perception includes 'He hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth, winning the World Series.'?"

Because they are playing cricket! ;^)

Thomas

"...our reliance on the strange meta-belief that there is order in the world, the prerequisite for all our induction, becomes clearer than ever."

Exactly! That is exactly my argument against Hume's skepticism of induction, that if we assume order, then induction necessarily follows. I believe that it can be proved a priori, through deduction (though, you may be right that even deduction requires induction at first), that the universe is ordered. The reason I say this is because reality can only be one way. Logic may imply a myriad of possibilities, but there can really only be one actuality. That being the case, I believe it can be shown that the other seeming-possibilities are actually logically impossible. To prove that the universe is ordered, we must show that the universe couldn't possibly be chaotic, and voila! Of course, we could just take as axiom that the universe is ordered, and have little doubt that we're mistaken.

Nathan Smith

"To prove that the universe is ordered, we must show that the universe couldn't possibly be chaotic, and voila!"

Is Tom claiming to have shown this already, or is he proposing that we try to show it? I don't think we can show that the universe can't be chaotic. I'm with Hume here.

"Of course, we could just take as axiom that the universe is ordered, and have little doubt that we're mistaken."

That's a bit like what I'm saying. We certainly "have little doubt that we're mistaken" in applying induction on a daily basis. We can question whether there is order as an abstract proposition, but we will never be able to stop our minds from forming beliefs as if the premise of order were true. So we do "have little doubt that we're mistaken," or even perhaps none, but that says something about our minds rather than about the world.

Thomas

This is from one of my blog posts. Let me know if you find it convincing.


Order vs Chaos
What is order? In simple terms, the ordered is that which follows a pattern, and a pattern is that which can be logically reduced or compressed to more (perhaps arbitrarily) basic propositions. Chaos is the inverse of order, meaning the chaotic does not follow a pattern and cannot be logically reduced or compressed. Is the universe ordered or chaotic? Does the universe follow patterns or not? Can the universe be logically reduced or compressed to basic propositions? If we assume that the universe is ordered, no amount of evidence or reasoning can be used to show the necessary veracity of that claim, for bits of order can be imagined or projected upon otherwise total chaos, and any evidence for order is not necessarily evidence against chaos. That's what Hume argued, at least. In this sense, the theory that the universe is ordered fails the Popperian falsibility test, and thus is not (necessarily) a proper scientific claim. If we cannot show that the universe is ordered beyond a shadow of a doubt, can we perhaps show that it is chaotic in some way? To do that we'd need to provide an instance of chaos with either logical reasoning or physical evidence. In the case of logical reasoning, it's highly problematic if not outright impossible to show something as being chaotic. How can you prove that something doesn't follow a pattern and can't be logically reduced? More importantly, how can you logically construct an object that follows no pattern? It seems that if you can use logic to construct an object, then it must necessarily follow a pattern and must therefore be ordered. Since it's seemingly impossible to use logic to construct something chaotic, the implication is that chaos must be illogical. But even though we can't provide an instance of chaos with reasoning, perhaps we can through physical evidence. Many people point to radiation as a sign of the fundamental existence of chaos. But our understanding of physics is incomplete, and it may just be that we haven't found the proper way to predict when a radioactive particle will decay. No amount of physical evidence could prove that the universe is chaotic and doesn't have some sort of underlying order. So as with the case of assuming order, we find that the theory the universe is chaotic fails the falsibility test, and is thus not a proper scientific claim. But the universe must be one way or the other. It can't both not be ordered and not be chaotic. Intuitively, the universe definitely seems to be ordered, and rationally we can't even produce an instance of chaos, thus it's safe to assume that the universe is in fact ordered even if proving that claim is problematic. (Pragmatically, it's useful to claim that the universe is both ordered and chaotic depending on the realm of inquiry, but by definition the universe as a whole could only logically be one way or the other).

Val Larsen

Nathaniel’s version of the cogito obviates objections I had to Descartes version because in his account, thought need not be contentless and the self stands well defined by its relation to it and him/her. I think, too, that he is right about the constancy of objects being dubitable only logically, when we channel Hume, not in practice as we, perforce, live our lives with a settled expectation that the sun will rise. But let me add a qualification on induction.

There was a famous debate between Chompsky and Skinner in the late 50’s that pivoted on the question of whether language was a product of operant conditioning, e.g., learned inductively, or required an inborn template. By all accounts, Chompsky, who argued against tabula rasa induction, won the argument. And the same reasoning/observations probably apply to Nathaniel’s account of a child learning about the constancy of objects. Here is the main point—the fact that something is learned through experience (thus apparently through induction) doesn’t necessarily mean that an a priori potentiality didn’t enable the learning. In the case of language, if one isn’t taught to speak before puberty (roughly), one loses the ability to learn. There have been a few sad cases where abused children have been discovered after passing the threshold, and while they could learn words, they could never learn to assemble them into normal sentences, whereas children discovered at a younger age could. So here and elsewhere in developmental psychology, it appears that the mind has the inborn capacity (which other animals lack) to learn certain things at certain stages of brain development. If the inborn capacity isn’t there (an a priori element), the learning doesn’t occur. But even if it is, one must add experience with its inductive dimension to actualize the innate potential.

Val Larsen

Thomas writes:

"The reason I say this is because reality can only be one way. Logic may imply a myriad of possibilities, but there can really only be one actuality. That being the case, I believe it can be shown that the other seeming-possibilities are actually logically impossible."

I'm no expert on physics, but a corrolary of one recent attempt at a grand unification theory (string theory, I think) was the existence an infinite number of universes in which some vary on just one fact (e.g., Elvis is still alive). While string theory has run into problems (as if more problems were needed given this infinite number of universes deus ex machina), the theory does at least show that we can't say that the properites of our universe are logically necessary as Thomas implies. If so, the physicists would have immediately dismissed string theory when this implication became apparent.

Nathan Smith

What fascinating and insightful comments from both Val and Tom!

To Tom: I'm not quite convinced, because it seems to me that "the universe is chaotic" is a merely negative claim, and thus to subject it to a Popperian test is not appropriate. Or, again, if "the universe is chaotic" and "the universe is ordered" are both non-falsifiable/non-scientific statements, then we can't say "one is true" and just pick based on some other grounds (at least, if we do, we need to acknowledge a deliberate debasement of epistemic rigor). Or, again, the claim that "the universe must be one way or the other, it can't both not be ordered and not be chaotic" is itself not a Popperian, falsifiable statement. But you frame the issue very well.

To Val: Chomsky's argument is fascinating. I read about it second-hand in Daniel Dennett and in a couple of other places. I want to read the original sometime. I don't want to change my mind on the basis of an argument of which I have only hearsay, but it might change my thinking on some things if I did get the chance to read it. Thanks for the reminder.

Thomas

Haha! I have studied string theory a fair amount, though of course I'm not professionally involved in the field, and it is a grand mistake reminiscent of the theory of the ether. String theory as it stands now makes NO testable predictions(!). Can that even be considered science? No, no. String theory is just a bunch of clever math with no tangible relationship to reality. Perhaps it will reflect physical reality someday, but that day has not yet arrived.

On the "infinite worlds" point, I wrote another little ditty on my blog, and it is as follows:


The Finite vs the Infinite
The finite is relatively easy to describe: it is that which is limited or bounded. The infinite is the inverse of the finite, meaning it is that which is without limit or boundary. In practical application for every-day use, this is a very easy definition to understand and apply. For instance, each unit of time is finite, but time itself is infinite (or so it seems). But philosophically we must ask what it could possibly mean to have or not have a limit. A limit is something that constrains or restricts an object or set. In this way, a limit explicitly defines characteristics of an object or set. You could say that to place a limit on an object is to narrow and refine its definition. For instance, when I say "Thomas John Reasoner" I'm referring to a very limited set of people, namely me (and possibly other accidents of history). If I merely say "Thomas", I'm referring to a much less limited set of people, the people named Thomas, but that set is still finite. I could go on and remove more and more limits to expand the set I'm referring to until I eventually refer to (nearly?) the entire universe. But what about something that is absolutely unlimited and infinite? Based on my current argument, such a thing would be undefined, since limits are needed to explicitly define something, and any statements or propositions about such a thing would also be undefined and meaningless. If no meaningful statements can be made about an infinite thing, can the thing even be conceived of? My answer is no. At this point, a clear objection can be made that modern mathematics is completely dependent on the existence and definition of the infinite, and an example of the set of all numbers could be given as an instance of the infinite. But that objection conflates two subtly different notions of the infinite. In practice, mathematical calculations using "the infinite" as an operand somewhere are done in finite time. The concept of infinity in mathematics is used like a finite entity: it has a definition and is itself limited by that definition. The example of the infinite set of numbers is a red herring, because in practice infinite sets of numbers can be and are described by finite algorithms, and thus are not truly "without limit". One last objection can be raised at this point that the set itself has an unlimited number of numbers in it, and is thus infinite. But how can the assertion of that objection be known? Can we explicitly enumerate all of the numbers in an infinite set even in theory? Of course not, because then it wouldn't be "infinite", in the sense framed by the objection. If we can't enumerate the entire set of elements, then how can we even conceive of it? Certainly we do use infinite sets in mathematics, but only in so much as we use the algorithms that imply them, such as the recursive algorithm that takes the previous number and adds 1 to it, which implies an infinite set of natural numbers. We do not and can not use the infinite set in itself for any calculations. Every algorithm used in mathematics is finite, and though they may imply infinite sets, they cannot enumerate them in finite time, and thus the idea of the infinite as absolutely without limit cannot be conceived of, even theoretically, unless to equate it with the undefined.

Nato

Though it was a bit tongue-in-cheek, my question had a serious side.

How could one be described as having a belief that there is no order? I have not considered the topic at length, but I don't see an easy way for "having the belief that there is no order" to be coherent. Can such a null state be described as "belief" in any meaningful way?

Val Larsen

Nathaniel Writes:

“I don't understand what Val is talking about. One doubts away beliefs, perhaps, but not visual experience. The Cartesian gambit is not some conjuring trick, whereby a person loses all perception, all memory of perception, etc. One doubts all *interpretations* of perception, perhaps, in order resolutely to start again from the beginning; but raw sensory experience, surely, is still there. Likewise raw introspective experience.”

If the possibility of the “I” and the “think” can be shown to depend on the presence of raw sensory experience, on perceptions of the world outside the self, then the Cogito is not itself the foundation for Descartes epistemology, as he implied. He should have said, as Nathaniel implicitly does in his post, “percipio ergo sum”, i.e., I perceive, therefore, I exist. I took him at his word that he was mentally able to eliminate from his epistemological calculus everything but the premise, a pure “I think” and is logical consequent, “therefore I am.”

Nato

Is cognition without reference to perception of some sort even intelligible?

Nathan Smith

"He should have said, as Nathaniel implicitly does in his post, “percipio ergo sum”, i.e., I perceive, therefore, I exist."

I think 'cogito' is a better formulation. "Perceive" typically applies that one is experience a sensation which enable an apprehension of something real. But we do not assume from the outset that we are perceiving anything real. We may be perceiving, or we may be hallucinating, but in any case, we are thinking, which includes both of these and other mental experiences as well.

Val Larsen

Nato writes:

"Is cognition without reference to perception of some sort even intelligible?"

My answer is no. I think perceiving is more fundamental the thinking. If it is ontologically prior to thinking, it is a better ab initio position for a rationalist looking to overcome radical doubt. Do bugs think? Do paramecia? They certainly perceive. If perception can exist without "thinking," then it is probably the more fundamental modality of experience.

Nathan Smith

"Do bugs think? Do paramecia? They certainly perceive. If perception can exist without 'thinking,' then it is probably the more fundamental modality of experience."

Well, I certainly don't buy this argument. This is the reductionist path. Following the same logic, atoms and molecules are more fundamental than perception. But the whole point is that we don't know whether experience-- or, to say the same thing but emphasize an important feature, *subjective* experience-- exists in bugs and/or paramecia. We do not know what it is like to be a bug, or whether it is like anything at all. The first thing we know is subjective experience, our own subjective experience. Epistemically, at any rate, that is most fundamental. We do not know *ab initio* whether any of our subjective experience is perception. It might, rather, be a sort of dreaming. I think that "the material world is a dream" can in a sense be refuted, but that refutation is very much *a posteriori*.

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